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Making a FOIA Request

There is a lot of advice and information about how to make a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.  Be sure to look for links on this site to additional help.  FOIA requests are made to the federal government.  For information held by state or local agencies, you normally will want to proceed under the Iowa Open Records Act.

Before you proceed with a FOIA request, make sure that the information you seek has not already been posted on the web by the agency.  Also, be aware that FOIA requests are usually a very slow information-gathering process and are not a good substitute for information that can be gathered by research or a few phone calls.  If the information you request contains personal information about others, you'll need to comply with the federal Privacy Act as well.

FOIA Instructions

Freedom of Information Act.  Title 5 U.S.C. §5552

Congress enacted the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966 to provide the public with access to records from federal agencies in the Executive Branch. 

Making a FOIA Request
  • There is no central office processing FOIA requests. It is very important to determine which federal agency is likely to have the records you want. Each agency (like the Department of Justice) is required to provide contact information or reference material to assist the public in requesting records.
  • If you are using just the general mailing address of the agency, write “Freedom of Information Act Request” clearly on the envelope and at the beginning of your request letter. 
  • Some agencies provide a form (example) to help speed up the location of the requested records. However, the same request can be submitted in the form of a letter or e-mail if you prefer. Many agencies now also provide an online form for FOIA requests on their website.
  • Remember to specify in your request the format in which you’d like to receive your records (Hard copy, e-mail pdf, etc.)
  • If you request information on yourself, most agencies will require you to either include a notarized statement or a declaration like, “I declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct” with a dated signature.
  • Other people’s records are normally not disclosed to you unless you provide the subject’s consent or proof of death.
  • Be specific! Start the body of your letter by writing, “I request access to and copies of” followed by a description of names, places and dates or time ranges, as well as any other information or documents you believe will help describe the records you are seeking. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press provides a letter generator to help structure your letter.
  • Some FOIA requests require fees. Most requests are charged duplication fees after two hours of search time or the first 100 pages. 
  • Duplication fees are usually about 10¢ per page. You could also include a note in your request stating how much you are willing to pay for the duplication, research, and processing of your request.
  • Payment is usually due after the records are processed.

Response Time

FOIA gives agencies 20 business days to respond to a request. The clock starts when the request is actually received by the proper department. (If you send a request to the correct agency but the incorrect department, the agency has 10 days to reroute your request before the 20-day time period begins.) 
  • An additional 10 business days may also be added to the response time for “unusual circumstances,” such as particularly large document requests.
  • The response may be a simple letter acknowledging your request and informing you that the documents will be sent within a reasonable time.

Pit Falls
  • The FOIA does not require agencies to do additional research, create documentation, analyze data, or answer written questions.  So, an organization with an archaic records system, for example, may satisfy a FOIA request by turning over a jumble of data or explaining that it doesn’t keep a specific statistic.
  • Do not employ "legalese."  Many requests fail because they are not understood.  Use plain English.
  • Be careful in using words like "All" or "Every."  If you fail to put reasonable limits on the information your are seeking you could end up with an overly broad search and production of documents.
  • Get the right office.  Some agencies like the FBI do not always centralize all their records.  You may need to direct your FOIA both to Washington and local field offices to get all the information you seek.


Some records are not available through FOIA. Exemptions are laid out in Section 552(b)1 of the FOIA and include nine categories of records that are exempt from disclosure: 

1.  Classified national defense or foreign policy

2.  Internal rules and agency practices

3.  Information specifically exempted by another statute

4.  Trade secrets, financial information, and other privileged material

5.  Memoranda or letters would not be available to a party in litigation with the agency

6. Personnel, medical, or other files that would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

7.  Records compiled for law enforcement purposes to the extent that the records could interfere with enforcement, deprive a person of a right to a fair trial, qualify as an invasion of personal privacy, reveal a confidential source or investigation, or could endanger the safety of any individual. 

8.  Records relating to the examination, operation, or condition of financial institutions

9.  Oil well data and certain geological information